Caring for Feral Cats

Oct 18, 2021   Tracey Aston   Health & Wellness

October 16th was National Feral Cat Day. A day to work together to acknowledge the issues feral cats face and work together for the betterment of these cats. A feral cat is an undomesticated cat who lives outdoors, cares for itself and its colony and will often avoid human contact. Some cats are born feral, others have been lost and never found their way home, and some, unfortunately, were released or left behind and joined colonies. Feral cats and stray cats are different in the fact that a stray cat may be used to people and can be rehomed, depending on how long the cat has been fending for itself. Some stray cats will turn feral after a certain amount of time and others can still be rescued. Feral cats are NOT indoor/outdoor or outdoor cats who have a home and have been socialized with humans.

Some feral cat colonies are cared for by individuals or communities but can't be brought inside due to being unsocialized with humans and other animals. Animal lovers always want to help but it's important to think long term before starting to care for feral cats. What can start out as one or two feral cats can quickly become many if they find a constant source of food or shelter.

Cats can become fertile as early as 5 months of age and female cats can reproduce 2 to 3 times a year. Depending on how many females are in a colony, a few feral cats could quickly become hundreds within a year. If you notice a feral cat colony, the first step should always be to attempt a TNR as quickly as possible.  Before starting to care for a colony, take your neighbors, local wildlife population and financial means into consideration. As stated, one or two feral cats can quickly become a colony, and rarely are feral cats litter trained, meaning they will be using your yard, shed or even porch as a place to relieve themselves. If members of the colony haven't been part of a TNR program, there may also be issues with spraying and marking territory.  A compassionate heart for ferals is a wonderful thing, and caretakers are making a difference in the lives of these animals, but as with anything, it's important to enter with an open mind.

By far, the biggest issue facing feral cats is overpopulation. For this reason, many rescues and organizations will use Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) programs to attempt to control the feral cat population. TNR works by setting out humane traps near feral cat populations and when the cat is trapped, taking it to be spayed or neutered and then releasing them back into their colony.

Oftentimes, cats will also have their ears tipped, meaning a very small piece of their ear is cut to show they have been part of a TNR program. This is done by a doctor when the pet is already anesthetized for their spay/neuter surgery and doesn't cause an issue for the cat.  



Individuals can do a TNR on their own for a local feral colony, but keep in mind, the cost of the spay/neuter surgery will fall to the individual. For this reason, many individuals will contact feral cat organizations to help control the colony population.  If attempting to do a TNR as an individual, there are a few things to consider.

  Number of cats

How to trap a feral cat 

Where the cats will be held

Transportation to and from the veterinarian or spay/neuter clinic


Feral cats are skittish by nature, and it will take time and patience to get them used to the trap. Traps need to be set well enough in advance, preferably a week, before attempting to catch the cats. Start out by having the traps open but not set. Cover the traps with a towel or cloth to make it a dark space to want to go in. Set the food in the traps and allow the cats to get used to going in and out of the trap. When putting the food in the trap, use wet food, or good smelling food like tuna or rotisserie chicken to entice the cats to enter the trap to eat.  The longer the cats are able to eat and get used to the trap, the better chance of catching more cats in a colony at a time.

After the cat is trapped, it should remain in the trap until they are taken to be spayed or neutered. Don't attempt to remove a feral cat from the trap on your own or you may be injured. It's important to always remember, feral cats are not socialized with humans. Due to anesthesia, cats should go without food 24 hours before getting spayed or neutered, so don't worry if the cat is in the trap for a day before being able to transport.

After spaying or neutering, the cat will be returned to you in the same trap. After returning to the colony, set the cat down in the trap, open and door and stand back.  Feral cats usually won't seek conformation with humans and will most likely run.  After TNR, feral cats can be cared for without the worry of more feral cats.

Feral cats have similar needs to domesticated cats, such as shelter, food and water. October is normally the time of year when the weather begins to change and feral cats need more help finding these things. During the colder months, feral cats will need somewhere warm and dry to rest and their food and water can freeze when left outdoors. When leaving water outside for feral cats make sure to keep refilling or checking if the water is frozen. Wet food is better in the winter months as it has a higher fat content but the smell can draw more animals and if left outside can draw pests and insects.

Feral cats will seek shelter in sheds, a barn, under porches or even car engines or around a warm vehicle but DIY shelters can easily and affordably be made from Styrofoam bins, old coolers or even totes. When making DIY shelters, keep a few things in mind, safety and warmth for the cat, ease of entrance and exit for the cat and easy access for you if you want to clean the shelter. The entrance doesn't need to be large, as this will only allow more cold inside. If you are looking for a good DIY shelter for feral cats,  Alley Cat Advocates has a step-by-step guide to making a feral cat shelter.

Feral cats are still deserving of love and compassion and are feral through no fault of their own. Helping to control the feral population through TNR and providing basic necessities for survival can go a long way in helping these cats have a safe life. 

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